Exploring Ocean Mysteries: From Dynamic Shores to the Deep Sea

What do world-traveling plastic toys, biodiversity in the deep sea, climate change and the last great unexplored area on Earth have in common? The critical need for ocean literacy! The ocean is often neglected in our schools, yet it comprises 71% of Earth’s surface. Life on Earth evolved in and depends on our global ocean.

Exploring Ocean Mysteries is a curriculum that makes it easy to teach the seven Ocean Literacy Principles while meeting NGSS, Common Core and Climate Literacy standards. Lessons are targeted to middle grades and adaptable for grades 4-12. They use the National Marine Sanctuary System as an engaging backdrop that helps students understand their importance for exploration, research, Indigenous cultures and more.

The 17 lessons and supporting resources below have been created by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in collaboration with Engaging Every Student, supported by funding from National Geographic Society and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 1: Earth has one big ocean with many features.

Ocean waves in the open sea with three cartoon yellow rubber duckies floating on the waves.

Mapping Friendly Floatees

Students explore ocean phenomena through the story of floating toys that traveled far and wide after a shipping disaster. They predict where the toys might have traveled, then use ocean current and prevailing wind information to revise their predictions.

Exploring Marine Sanctuaries

Students learn about the National Marine Sanctuary System by researching their habitats, species, physical features and cultural importance. Students will understand there is a tremendous diversity of ocean environments and life forms.

A young boy poses for the camera by holding a piece of trash up at a local beach cleanup. Other people cleaning up and the shore of the beach are seen in the background.

Watersheds to Whales

Students will learn about watershed stewardship and make observations about how water and pollution runoff can infiltrate landscapes and flow to the ocean. Students consider sources of pollution and how that pollution could travel through a watershed and affect national marine sanctuaries or monuments and the organisms that live there.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 2: The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.

Large rocks sit on the shoreline of a beach, the water has a large amount of mist emitting from it. The rock on the left has trees sitting at the top of it.

Sanctuary Landscapes

This lesson engages students with phenomena impacting coastal landscapes at East Coast and West Coast national marine sanctuaries. Students will explore the geologic and ocean forces that created the diverse features and investigate where and when they might be most likely to find buried treasure.

Landscape photo of a beach with bright blue water and large rock formations (bluffs) enclosing a portion of shore.

Sifting Sanctuary Sands

Students “visit” locations in Hawai’i and on the West Coast by exploring a model of the Pacific basin, analyzing close-up photos of sand at various beaches in national marine sanctuaries and monuments. Students speculate about the origins of sand and geological processes that create it. They realize that many constructive and destructive forces are at work between land and sea.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 3: The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.

Satellite sea surface temperature departure from normal in the Pacific basin during
                                an El Niño event, where darker orange-red colors are above normal temperatures.

Investigating El Niño & Impacts of Changing Ocean Temperature

Students explore ocean temperature data visually with NOAA View Global Data Explorer. They consider impacts of changing ocean conditions on marine sanctuaries and wildlife, as well as global impacts of El Niño and La Niña and other changes that impact the ocean and Earth’s climatic and living systems that depend on it.

Landscape of the sea covered in broken up pieces of ice with the sky above displaying the colors of a sunset: pink, purple, and blue.

Investigating Albedo & Ocean Feedback Loops

Students investigate effects of shining light on differently colored materials on temperature. They design experiments to test the important role albedo plays in determining how much radiation is absorbed by a substance.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 4: The ocean makes Earth habitable.

Magnified phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, is depicted here before a blue background. The body of the phytoplankton is bright green and the tail is black.

An Ocean of Oxygen Producers

This lesson focuses on how marine photosynthetic organisms contribute oxygen to our atmosphere. Students will research and present about a marine organism that photosynthesizes and consider the importance of those organisms as historic and current contributors to atmospheric oxygen.

Ocean Origins of Life

Students explore the evolution of marine organisms. Students research where in national marine sanctuaries the living species are found and create a sanctuary poster featuring the organism.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 5: The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.

Bright blue water surrounds a diverse assortment of coral, with one massive lobe coral in the center of the image. 2 divers can be seen far off on the left side of the image, and one is closer up and next to the coral on the right.

Modeling Coral Reef Ecosystems: Rainforests of the Sea

Students research an organism from coral reef ecosystems. Students will present their findings to the class, then create kinesthetic and visual ecosystem models, incorporating other organisms and nonliving things that are important for the ecosystem. Through their models and class discussion, students will demonstrate how biodiversity makes ecosystems more resilient.

Students monitor a rocky intertidal community with a quadrat at a national marine sanctuary in California.

Tidal Tales: Monitoring Marine Life

Students will learn techniques scientists use to measure species abundance in rocky intertidal and subtidal zones in national marine sanctuaries. Students will consider the environmental conditions that influence species occurrence and abundance and why it is important to monitor these sensitive habitats.

A green Venus flytrap anemone, off-white soft coral colony, and a pink brittle star are all clustered together with small fish and ocean surrounding them.

Sanctuaries of Deep-Sea Coral Communities

This lesson focuses on species found in deep-sea coral communities and environmental factors that influence their presence and abundance. Students will view videos of real scientific transects taken with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and record data on the presence of specified species.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 6: The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.

A green forest lines the horizon, gray clouds are in the sky, and dark brown wet sand covers the ground. A researcher holds up a razor clam right in front of the camera while a man in a bright red shirt looks at it in the background.

Mystery of the Disappearing Shells

Students conduct an experiment to examine the effects of acidic solutions on shells. They explore causes of ocean acidification and impacts on marine life, including the impacts of acidified seawater on bivalves, such as clams, mussels and oysters. They also discuss ways of reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to mitigate the problem.

A Laysan albatross seabird on the right with white feathers checks on its chick on the left with dark gray feathers, there is a pale blue sky in the background and beige sand at their feet.

Clues from Albatross: Determining Ocean Health

Before leaving the nest, albatross chicks regurgitate a mass of indigestible material called a bolus. Boluses give us clues as to the types of food and trash eaten by albatross parents at sea. In this lesson, students will use professional photographs of a bolus to perform a “virtual dissection” and analysis.

Ocean Literacy Essential Principle 7: The ocean is largely unexplored.

A diver explores a rusting shipwreck surrounded by small fish and bright blue water.

Surfacing Ocean Mysteries

Students explore phenomena observed at national marine sanctuaries or monuments. They investigate reasons for ocean exploration and benefits to humans. They discover that most of the ocean is unexplored and that exploration is critical for protecting life on Earth and finding new resources.

A Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner sounds the pū (conch shell trumpet). The sun is shining in the top left corner, there is a blue sky with white clouds, the dark blue ocean, and one sailboat to the right of the practitioner.

Ocean Explorers: Unlocking Mysteries

Students investigate an ocean explorer and their work in and around national marine sanctuaries or monuments. Students will realize that we know very little about the ocean, with many mysteries yet to be investigated.

A NOAA crew consisting of 5 people all wearing hard hats and bright orange life vests surround an ROV (remotely operated vehicle). The blue sky meets the blue ocean at the horizon in the background.

Plan an Ocean Expedition

Students plan an expedition to a national marine sanctuary or monument. They choose a phenomenon to investigate, select personnel they will hire and technology they will use. Students create a research question, mission statement, expedition budget and justify how their choices support the mission.